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Russian Masters
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Cello & Piano in C major, Op. 119 [26:14]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor, Op. 40 [29:10]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nocturne in D minor, Op. 19 No. 4 [5:09]
Pezzo Capriccioso in B minor, Op. 62 [7:31]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Chant du ménestrel, Op. 71 [4:08]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor [4:01]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
In the style of Albéniz [3:59]
Jamal Aliyev (cello)
Anna Fedorova (piano)
rec. 2015, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
Booklet notes in English

On the programming of this well-filled CD, I can’t help but think there’s been a miscalculation by having such a long tail of miscellaneous makeweights after the Prokofiev and Shostakovich sonatas. The effect on me is to rather dilute the impact of the main works, even to trivialise them. The ideal accompaniment would be the Rachmaninov cello sonata, but that is counted out by the longish performance times by Jamal Aliyev and Anna Fedorova of the other two sonatas. Even so, a work such as Rachmaninov’s Five Pieces for cello and piano could have been accommodated, and provided sufficient ‘lightening-up’, if that was the intention.

Having touched on performance times, my other concern with the two major works is a certain dourness that pervades the playing of both, together with an almost naive literalism that seems out of place if you know these sonatas and their history. While in the liner notes Aliyev and Fedorova each declare an upbringing in the ethos of the Soviet composers, they are possibly too young for the full experience of that time to have registered on their art. They are not alone, as I recently discovered in reviewing Nina Kotova (with Fabio Bidini) on Warner, where I found her Prokofiev sonata too urbane and polite. Aliyev and Fedorova have the advantage of better balance and sharper attack, but the colours are also muted, and the levity largely missed. One only has to compare the Prokofiev sonata’s Moderato movement with the Decca recording of Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy; while Harrell of course is no Russian, he certainly has one of the Soviet era as accompanist and, presumably, back-seat driver. Their playfulness truly smacks of the quirky Prokofiev; Aliyev and Fedorova are much plainer, though the expressive melody of the middle section finds Aliyev in richer and more generous tone. The same can be said for the sonata-rondo finale: fine musicianship by Aliyev and Fedorova, but under-playing those contrasts so essential for echt Prokofiev.

From late Prokofiev to relatively early Shostakovich should make for an intriguing transition. At the time of his cello sonata in the late 1940s, Prokofiev was under the Soviet microscope, accused of ‘formalism’, and the subversive, abrasive elements common to his earlier works were on the wane. Conversely, when Shostakovich composed his cello sonata in 1934, shortly after his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk premiered, his urges for parody and irony were rising. Not yet having incurred Stalin’s displeasure over the opera, Shostakovich’s rebellious undercurrents are coded into the sonata’s musical argument, which is otherwise of classical style. Aliyev and Fedorova play the work relatively ‘straight’, finely wrought but favouring the lyrical and lugubrious. Comparison again with Harrell and Ashkenazy shows more of the face behind the mask: at generally swifter tempos, the distinctive humour of its time starts to emerge - the jollity largely forced, the smile unmistakably sardonic. While Harrell may appear less secure than Aliyev in particularly the more manic passages of the rondo-finale, doing Shostakovich justice is never about playing safe.

If the sonatas are not played with all the bite and character they might be, at least moving on to the two Tchaikovsky confections seems not so anti-climactic. Together with the Glazunov piece that follows, Aliyev and Fedorova establish themselves as exemplary exponents of this lighter fare, Aliyev’s ample and glowing sonority matched by the colour and scale of Fedorova’s sensitive pianism. The Borodin Prince Igor dances are Aliyev’s own arrangement for cello and piano, an effective if somewhat literal transcription, juxtaposed as it is with the final piece by Shchedrin, a splendidly swaggering, staggering nod to what one can only presume is a rather tipsy Albéniz. The Champs Hill recording in the intimate acoustic of their Music Room is immediate, warm and detailed, with just the occasional suggestion of brittleness on the loudest piano passages.

So, a recital by Jamal Aliyev and Anna Fedorova in two halves really, beginning with two great sonatas which do not perhaps get their full due, but then a clutch of salon pieces played with winning style and aplomb that would grace any occasion.

Des Hutchinson



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